Panathinaikos advanced to the Euroleague Final for the first time in five years by downing Tau Ceramica 67-53 Friday night in the second semifinal of the 2007 Euroleague Final Four at Athens Olympic Indoor Hall (OAKA) in the Greek capital. To the delight of their many fans in the sold-out arena, Sani Becirovic and Mike Batiste scored 15 points apiece to lead the Greens, who led from start to finish. Panathinaikos, which has not been to a final since winning the 2002 title in Bologna, Italy, will face defending champion CSKA Moscow in the championship game here on Sunday evening. The win is sweet revenge for coach Zeljko Obradovic's side, which saw its bid to reach the 2006 Final Four ended by Tau at OAKA in Game 3 of the Quarterfinal Playoffs last season. The result also sends Tau home empty handed in its third successive trip to the Final Four. Tau was in the game more than the final score would indicate, clawing its way back to a 6-point deficit late in the fourth quarter. But when coach Bozidar Maljkovic's club lost star power forward Luis Scola to his fifth foul and with his shooters all struggling, Panathinaikos was able to claim the victory. Batiste added 12 rebounds to his tally for an impressive double-double, while Ramunas Siskauskas finished with 11. Tau, which scored 15 points fewer than its previous lowest scoring effort of the season, got 11 from Serkan Erdogan. Tau finished 4-for-24 (16.7%) from downtown and despite 19 offensive rebounds, wound up with only 12 second-chance points. Scola finished with a season-low 6 points.
Dimitris Diamantidis just needed 15 seconds to bury the first basket of the game with a three-pointer, while Becirovic added a driving layup for a 5-0 Panathinaikos lead. Tau needed more than a minute to score before it found a go-to guy in Luis Scola. He nailed a mid-range jumper, but missed free throws in the following play. Tau's perimeter players were off-target in the opening minutes, and a layup-plus-foul by surprising starter Dimos Dikoudis gave the Greens a 8-2 lead. Pablo Prigioni beat the shot clock buzzer with a big three-pointer, but Becirovic answered with a smooth jumper. Tau kept looking for Scola and he fed Tiago Splitter for a huge dunk. A red-hot Becirovic buried a triple for a 13-7 Panathinaikos lead. Both teams kept playing tough defense without many fouls, but the Greens were at a different level of intensity now. Tau committed too many turnovers, forcing coach Maljkovic to call timeout after 7 minutes. Panathinaikos coach Zeljko Obradovic decided to use Fragiskos Alvertis at power forward and passing big man Dejan Tomasevic at center to open the court. Tau tried to get back to track with Zoran Planinic at point guard, but the visiting side simply could not score against the Greens' outstanding man-to-man defense, while Alvertis made 5 free throws to boost his team's lead to 18-7. Foul shots by Scola brought Tau within 18-9 after 10 minutes.
Tau opened the second quarter with a 24-second violation, but soon got back on track. Igor Rakocevic scored in penetration, while Tau finally managed to lock up the defensive rebounds and start playing its usual game. Scola and Splitter had already picked up their second foul, however, and Panathinaikos started to get Kostas Tsartsaris and Mike Batiste involved. Tau opted for a small lineup with Sergi Vidal at power forward, so coach Obradovic responded by bringing in Milos Vujanic for Tsartsaris. Batiste missed a couple of shots, which allowed Kaya Peker to bring Tau within 18-13. Nikos Hatzivrettas stepped up with a wild three-pointer, which Planinic answered with a driving layup. Diamantidis fed Batiste for an alley-oop layup off a Panathinaikos timeout, while Vujanic fired in one from downtown to make it an 11-point game, 26-15. Planinic tried to change things with consecutive driving layups, but Becirovic provided a highlight with a huge triple. Panathinaikos seemed comfortable playing with a small lineup, while Tau had trouble getting Rakocevic and House involved. Siskauskas took Peker one-on-one and buried a three-pointer, but Peker responded by scoring in the low post for Tau. Scola returned to the floor in the final minute of the half, but a free throw by Becirovic and a buzzer-beating tip-in by Siskauskas gave the Greens a 35-21 halftime margin.
Tau needed a quick comeback in the opening minutes of the third quarter to keep its chances alive, but missed three consecutive shots instead and saw Scola pick up his third foul. Erdogan finally found his first points of the night on a driving layup and soon added a three-pointer to get Tau within 35-26. Panathinaikos slowed its offense down and used enough patience to find good shots and get second-chance opportunities. Dikoudis scored in the paint, while stopping Scola with physical defense on the other end. Tau was facing severe foul trouble, as Prigioni, Planinic and Splitter joined Scola with 3 fouls each. House drew a foul and hit a free throw, but a corner triple by Siskauskas boosted the Greens' lead to 40-27 after 24 minutes, as a majority of Green fans exploded when Tau called a much-needed timeout. The visiting side adjusted its defense, but problems kept coming at the other end, with missed free throws and another 24-second violation. Vujanic and Rakocevic traded free throws, but Tau missed one shot after another despite its good defense. Free throws by Fred House and a put-back basket by Peker gave Tau some hope, 45-34. Batiste set the crowd on fire with a big dunk before Splitter hit a free throw to fix the score at 47-35 after three quarters.
Splitter stepped up with a tip-in at the start of the fourth quarter. Still, Panathinaikos shined on defense, but it struggled to score now with Vujanic and an unexpected Tony Delk at both guards. The Greens were getting to the foul line often and Batiste hit free throws for a 48-37 margin with less than 8 minutes remaining. Dikoudis took over with a wild fast break dunk, as the Tau shooters remained off-target down the stretch. Thousands of Panathinaikos fans had already started to celebrate, especially when Batiste stepped up with a one-handed put-back dunk. Tau did not give up however, as Prigioni fired one in from downtown and Erdogan added free throws for a 53-42 deficit. Scola shined with a put-back layup off a Tau timeout and by the time Erdogan buried a three-pointer Tau finished a 0-10 run and was back in the game at 53-47 with 4 minutes to go. Obradovic called a much-needed timeout and Batiste made a free throw on Scola's fourth foul. The Tau star fouled out right after that, but Planinic got his team within 54-48. Panathinaikos kept using the shot clock and carried on drawing fouls to keep its lead alive. Becirovic made free throws only to see Splitter erase them with an easy layup. Batiste was next on the line and did not miss either, but Erdogan only made 1 of 2 for Tau. Vujanic sealed the outcome with a three-pointer that broke the game at 61-51 with 1:41 remaining. Tau still franticly tried to make something happen, but it was to no avail as the Green crowd began to celebrate a spot in Sunday's final.
Friday, May 4, 2007